#372: Monuments To The Unthinkable
Remembering the past, reporting the reading wars, and saving your cat’s life
Welcome to December, loyal readers! Before anything else, I’d like to say happy birthday to my aunt Bernice, who turns 84 today. 🎂 An elementary school teacher for more than 40 years, she got me into teaching and reading, sharing with me her favorite book, Charlotte’s Web, when I was a kid. She’s been an inspiration to me all my life and a big supporter of all my reading-related pursuits, including this newsletter.
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All right, let’s get to this week’s selections. I’m leading today’s issue with “Monuments To The Unthinkable,” by Clint Smith. This is an exquisitely written, powerful essay about how Germany memorializes the sins of the Holocaust and what we can learn as Americans to come to terms with slavery and our shameful past. This piece is so good, you might be seeing it again in a couple weeks, when I reveal the four best articles of the year. I hope you make time to read it.
If history and public memory are not your thing, scroll down to find great articles on the latest salvo in the reading wars and whether you should get your pet cat a kidney transplant. Please enjoy!
Clint Smith: “It is impossible for any memorial to slavery to capture its full horror, or for any memorial to the Holocaust to express the full humanity of the victims. No stone in the ground can make up for a life. No museum can bring back millions of people. It cannot be done, and yet we must try to honor those lives, and to account for this history, as best we can. It is the very act of attempting to remember that becomes the most powerful memorial of all.”
I deeply appreciated this article for a number of reasons, including:
Dr. Smith acknowledges that Germany did not immediately build monuments after World War II and explores the current debate among Germans that their accounting of the past is merely performative.
When Dr. Smith takes you to Berlin’s Grunewald Station or walks past a Stolperstein or visits the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe, he makes sure to pause, reflect, and bring his experience to you.
He emphasizes that people, not governments, construct memory and memorials. He writes, “Germany’s most powerful monuments did not begin as state-sanctioned projects, but emerged — and are still emerging — from ordinary people outside the government who pushed the country to be honest about its past. Americans do not have to, and should not, wait for the government to find its conscience.”
I’ll be honest: Ever since the release of “Sold a Story,” Emily Hanford’s six-part podcast series about reading instruction, I’ve been turned off by the back-and-forth bashing between the phonics-first “Science of Reading” devotees and their many impassioned detractors. There have been Twitter fights; there have been open letters; there have been blog posts; there have been speeches. It’s the Reading Wars all over again. It’s tiring. Even though I care deeply about how to teach young people how to read, I’m steering clear of this fray. But I did find this critique by Prof. Maren Aukerman of the reporting on reading instruction very helpful. She doesn’t excoriate Ms. Hanford and Dana Goldstein (author of The Teacher Wars – she likes wars), but rather identifies how education journalists are exhibiting bias and sensationalizing a protagonist / antagonist conflict among adults when maybe we should be caring more about the kids. (13 min)
I’m personally more a dog person, and think Arlo is delightful, but I know many cat people (not necessarily “Cat People”), and one benefit of being a cat person is that you can prolong your cat’s life with a $15,000 kidney transplant. But should you? That’s the question Sarah Zhang answers in this funny-yet-serious article on the American trend of loving our pets (and investing in them) like our human children — especially among those of us who don’t have human children, an ever-growing group. Where’s the line between being a caring cat owner and doing too much? Is it maybe when you force another cat to give up their kidney for yours? (29 min)
✍🏼 READER ANNOTATIONS: Loyal reader Jason generously shared his thoughts after reading “A Kingdom from Dust” and listening to my interview with author Mark Arax. Jason writes, “That article is beautiful in its multifaceted take on such a complex history and such a convoluted situation. The writing gets at the complexity of water politics and power in California, and extends that to acknowledging the complexity in people and in life. Beautiful stuff.” Jason, thank you very much for reading, listening, and sharing your perspective. It makes me happy that so many of you carve out time to go deep into these great articles on race, education, and culture.
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